“Out of emptiness breaking”, Janet Wilson

Collected Poems 
Ruth Dallas
2nd ed, Otago University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877133868

The Black Horse and other stories 
Ruth Dallas
Otago University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 187713385X
Today, at 80, Ruth Dallas is, apart from Allen Curnow, New Zealand’s most venerable living poet. Her first volume, Country Road (1953), followed in the footsteps of the 1930s poets, but five more volumes, children’s fiction and short stories, show impressive diversification within the realist framework of that tradition. Dallas is that rare phenomenon, a genuinely regional poet who began writing and publishing in childhood, evolving a distinctive voice through her earliest responses to the landscape. Untouched by the changes in literary fashion that have swept through New Zealand society, the integrity of that original vision still remains intact. As she says about “Recent Poems” written since 1987: “I find that my outlook remains the same in that I am still drawn to write from my own perceptions of my surroundings”.

What those perceptions are, how they embody a South Island psyche and, furthermore, point to the existence of a South Island “school” of writing, is worth pondering now that Otago University Press has published as companion volumes a second edition of her Collected Poems and a short story collection. Certainly it is time to consider the importance of her work, for although Dallas has received many public accolades including an Hon D Litt (Otago) in 1978 and a CBE in 1989, it has received surprisingly little critical attention.

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Ruth Dallas was born in 1919 in Invercargill, into a small-time business family, the Mumfords: her father ran a petrol station, her mother a sweet-and-fruit shop. Writing was not a family preoccupation, as she says in her autobiography, Curved Horizon (1991). But she was inspired to do so when only ten or eleven, after walking with her mother and a school friend in “beautiful ferny glades”, roaming “among immense lupin-covered sand hills … the scene lonely and desolate with no house or fence or even cattle in view”. The poem “Deserted Beach” arose from a similar epiphany of utter solitude, complete silence: “No cry of child or gull above the fall / Of waves on stones. Only the sea moved there, / And weeds within the waves like floating hair”.

In her “Beginnings” essay written for Landfall (1965), Dallas comments: “this was the first time I became aware of nature’s lavishness for the sake of lavishness, and of the earth’s living out its own life, whether or not there is any human being to see. I came away with a sense of wonder that clung to me.” She goes on to ask, “Why does one write a poem?” Evidently, not to do so when a poem is “given” would be spiritually and emotionally impoverishing:

The inward experience wells up, overflows; it presents itself; a poet tries to master it in words, a painter with his brush, a composer with musical notes. There is pleasure in the making; but that is not all; there is a challenge, a release, and, if the making is prevented, there is the dryness of frustration.

 

Unsurprisingly, given these overflowing experiences at such a formative time, Dallas began publishing while still very young. First in the children’s pages of the Southland Daily News, and from 1946 in the Southland Times at the encouragement of M H Holcroft, then editor. At Holcroft’s suggestion, she took the name of her maternal grandmother, Dallas, as her pseudonym. This marks her entry into a vocation which arose from doing what came naturally to her and also symbolises the importance of her beloved grandmother, subject of several poems. The naturally reticent Dallas, who had a happy childhood, was close to all her family. The relationship with her mother (her father died suddenly aged 58), with whom she lived as an adult, was such that she describes her death in 1961 as one of the most traumatic losses in her life: it precipitated a major shift in her emotional orientation.

After leaving school at 16, Dallas followed various paths, significantly continuing to educate herself in literature. Prospects of marriage, the most obvious future for women then, vanished after her fiancé broke off their engagement. War intervened and she worked in Southland as a milk tester, and later in an army office. In 1954 she moved to Dunedin where she settled to a quiet life, living with a niece after her mother’s death. Publication in Landfall brought her into the circle of Charles Brasch; she became his assistant, offering highly valued opinions on poetry in a long and productive collaboration which ended only with his death in 1973.

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Dallas’s first volume established her as a “romantic” poet, a slippery concept in New Zealand writing. The landscape which awes and inspires her is an environment of isolation; like Brasch and Ursula Bethell, she perceives its indifference towards human habitation, but unlike Baxter she does not mythologise it as a pre-lapsarian paradise and potential cause of lost imagination in adulthood. For Dallas solitariness – both immanent and a habit of mind – is sustained in a dualism between the eye and its object; the mind in capturing nature’s glories seeks rest, settledness and finds containment within what nature provides: identification with the soul.

The certainty of this interaction is reflected in the metrical and rhythmical resolution of individual poems and in the economy of expression which is a hallmark of her work: “O far from the quiet room my spirit fills / The familiar valleys, is folded deep in the hills.” The oppositional structure extends into a contrast between the woof and warp of nature’s silences and the cacophonous sounds of distant society. Her most famous poem, “Milking Before Dawn”, celebrates the natural, self-renewing rhythms of rural life, imaged in the soothing throb of the cowshed, as a universal “truth” from which the uncomprehending city dweller is excluded.

Many poems enact this consciousness of nature’s pre-eminence yet indifference. Underlying is a recognition of absence or non-being, a lack of habitation, but also a brooding animistic presence which demands respect. This perception recurs in different guises: the meaninglessness of natural sound – “The wind that sings of nothing in the grass” – and, conversely, humanity’s refusal to listen to nature’s song; the solitariness of objects which are nevertheless linked “through the circle … of mountain, hill / And curving sea that once enclosed the world”; the solidity of nature, yet its potential for transformation and renewal.

Language in these early poems denotes human presence, consciousness, but the poetic voice is tempered by the need to find reconciliation, to establish control. The fragile boundaries that exist in an untamed environment mean that social discourse is correspondingly limited: people are silent, either studied in repose, or from photographs as in two poems on pioneering women, or in meditation as in “St Jerome in his Study”.

Dallas’s early poems, then, can be read as fine veils of sound, corresponding to the music of nature and attuned to its rhythms, floating over a vast, profoundly silent, impassive world, like the tui’s song “slow dropping / Into silence as the rain from leaves” and the “gull-cry and grass sound / Out of emptiness breaking”. Music is never far from the surface and many later poems are written as songs or song sequences, describing a range of instruments and musical styles: “Pioneer Blues”, “Girl with a Guitar”, “A Flute Song”, “Tune for a Descant Recorder”. Others have been set to music by John Joubert, Douglas Lilburn and Gillian Whitehead.

In developing her intuitions about this “metaphysic” of word and landscape into a distinctive harmonics, Dallas extends the tradition of the previous generation of poets, arguably meeting Brasch’s challenge that “the intimacy of the land we inhabit has yet to be learned”. But the focus on the oppositions in nature – silence and sound, stillness and movement, darkness and light – also recalls her South Island “solitary sisters”, Keri Hulme and Janet Frame.

Dallas’s second collection, The Turning Wheel (1961), demonstrates both expansiveness and poise at balancing contraries in tension, as in describing water as “Holding a glass for all or none to see / Time at rest in moving cloud or tree”. This stemmed from her readings in Buddhism and the 9th century Chinese poet, Po-Chu-I, which taught her to accept the inevitability of life and death. Oppositions, with their connotations of mortality and fate, are now synthesised within the orbit of the “turning wheel” of the natural world in which humanity is just one facet. The Oriental literary influence has also grounded Dallas’s thinking. New images of continuity and connectedness taken from Chinese philosophy create a wider cultural horizon, as does experimentation in forms like the Japanese haiku. Temperamentally inclined towards the mental discipline required to meet the exacting demands of these forms, her ability to condense a complex thought in a simple utterance appears in poems like “The Pool”:

Ripples from a stone
Dropped in a pool
Like a poem’s meaning
Go travelling on.

 

In poems from Day Book (1966), Shadow Show (1968), Walking on the Snow (1976), Steps of the Sun (1979) and in “Recent Poems” Dallas inhabits and interacts with a more populous world. The enormous variety in these collections is also due to experimentation in different styles and genres: dialogues, dreams, songs, haiku sequences, a verse fairy tale, and the powerfully cadenced, strikingly rhythmical
sequence “Jackinabox” which ventriloquises the clown’s voice – all reveal her innovativeness. There is the same brilliantly focussed observation of nature, but nature, now relocated, also acquires iconographic status; in “Shadow Show”, it appears as images constructed out of black paper.

Collectively, the later poems define an arc out towards the world, revealing a greater connectedness with society, greater exuberance. The rhythms of casual conversation and a relaxed style proclaim the “dailyness” of life and a capacity for light-hearted humour often involving Dallas herself, now located squarely within the poem by contrast to the earlier poems. She writes that in the University Library “I am swallowed by a whale / Whose ribs are well furnished With writing material”; or, when gardening, “I clip back the periwinkle. / Its blue eye looks at me.” In “On Reading Love Poems”, this is parodic, mocking:

Gentle reader, do not
Spit, I pray, the pip
Of love’s deep fruit,
The indigestible
Eyes that were her pearls.

 

Some are semi-autobiographical and explore grief, her encounter with death; others are reflections on incidents from childhood, ancestors, pioneers, the gold-digging past, her mother and grandmother. There is a “Last Letter” to Charles Brasch. Many announce her vocation, and foreground the business of writing poetry. In “Recent Poems” the evolution of the themes of Country Road comes full circle: landscape per se is almost completely displaced by personal concerns, emerging only in modest glimpses, like a bride beneath her veil. The title “Light and Dark” reinvokes the earlier preoccupations in considering death and old age, while gnomic dialogues and haiku contribute indirectly to this reflective mood. Fittingly, the collection concludes with a wish that these poems might yet fulfil: “Tonight I should like to go on walking / Forever”.

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In reading the stories in The Black Horse, one wonders at first whether, had it not been for Dallas’s considerable reputation as a poet, they might have remained uncollected. But as author of eight published volumes of children’s fiction, she writes to a high professional standard and these stories repay more than one reading. Her prose has the same sharpness and distilled clarity of her verse. And as statements about rural New Zealand possibly during the Depression – a formative time for Dallas – the stories provide the social counterpart to the poetry’s lonely landscapes. They also handle distinctively issues crucial to the development of the New Zealand short story. Poverty is abundant: of mind, opportunity, resources, culture.

There are hints of Sargeson in the punitive Puritanism of the man who burns the cheque that might have saved the farm, and of Mansfield in the child’s limited viewpoint in “At the Port”. But the beautifully observed title story is pure Dallas and so is the balance of mood in the story of the teacher who encounters a mentally damaged child. One focus is on solipsistic, triangular relationships; and the menacing mood in “The Macrocarpa Hedge” exemplifies perfectly her skill at implying dysfunction. Another is the woman’s point of view, and relationships between mother and child, the transition from childhood to adulthood are astutely observed. Dallas is not a feminist but as with Frame this persistent thread in her work offers fruitful insights.

These stories with their bleak settings suggest that Dallas is the last in a line that descends from Sargeson. In replacing his bitterest ironies with the aura of nurture, the hint of a humane God and an acceptance of fate, she reinscribes her rootedness in family values, and in the universe as benign: this is the essential discipline of her poetry. But to argue that the stories are dated is to miss the point: the style of her prose, as of her verse, has a quiet rigour that matches the subject matter; and she gains in artistic credibility what she loses in fashionableness.

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The scale of Dallas’s accomplishment should be measured against her modest presentation. Apparently insignificant incidents in her stories cumulatively make a bigger statement; “taming” nature in her verse is not to miniaturise, but to create a sense of balance: both reflect an exacting eye observing a changing world, bringing it into a new focus. But while Dallas’s characteristic understatement is one source of her work’s cohesion, it also explains why it has been ignored during a period of enormous expansion in the canon. Her introspective cast of mind does not sound the right note for a culture in a state of flux. Nevertheless her verse sounds another note which corresponds to a significant strain in New Zealand literature, epitomised by Denis Glover’s “Sings Harry” poems and sequences about South Island solitaries, Mick Stimson and Arawata Bill.

From hearing the impact of sound against silence, Dallas, like Glover, has found a musical “pitch” to evoke the experience of a place: the birds, mountains and chilly temperatures of the South Island. For we think of regions in literary terms just as we do in terms of food and climate: to my mind Dallas’s language with its sharp, clear tones, is like the durable but delicate alpine flower or, even better, the pure, crisp Pinot Noir grape of Otago’s best wines.

 

Janet Wilson teaches linguistics and English literature at Northampton University College.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review and Short stories
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